Wellington Chamber Music
Amici Ensemble with Diedre Irons (piano)
MOZART – Piano Quartet in G MInor K.478
DUTILLEUX – String Quartet “Ainsi la Nuit” (Thus the Night)
BRAHMS – Piano Quintet in F Minor Op.34
Ilott Theatre, Wellington
Sunday, 12th August, 2012
Blame Captain Haddock of the “Tintin” books for my “Blistering Brahms” heading – the other descriptions are more conventional, but no less heartfelt on my part. For this was a magnificent concert, a memorable marriage of great music and music-making, very much a “gentlemen of England now abed.…” scenario if ever there was one, for we lucky people in the audience.
With Mozart in his “G Minor mood” there was drama and dark purpose right from the concert’s beginning, with the composer’s K.478 Piano Quartet. The expression on Diedre Irons’ face, ready to plunge into the opening bars with her ensemble colleagues spoke volumes, really. The musicians relished it all, the major/minor mirrorings of the opening phrases, the piquant asymmetries of the lyrical contrasts and the richly unexpected modulations of the development – all contributed tellingly to a powerful, all-pervading ambivalence of mood throughout the opening movement.
Violinist Donald Armstrong led the ensemble with a will, his tone perhaps a little raw in places, but the sound indicative of the intensity of feeling he was investing with the notes. Mozart’s usual dictum “It should flow like oil” was here augmented with episodes of intense, knife-edged focus. Diedre Irons’ piano took the lead with the development, as always with her playing the tones coloured and inflected with what seemed like a Shakespearean kind of eloquence. In reply, the strings’ long-breathed lines were gorgeous, filled with intense feeling.
The operatic Andante sang out here, melody and counter melody drawing forth lines and accompaniments of great strength, the music never sentimentalized (a beautiful contribution from Julia Joyce’s viola at one point). The finale’s opening seemed a long way from the tragedy of the opening movement’s utterances. We heard such supple, beautifully-placed dovetailing at quite a cracking pace, everything made to “bubble” and generate high spirits, though with some lurches into a darker minor mood in places – the composer obviously saying, “Just to let you know that….” with these sequences.
After these antiquarian tragicomedies, the following work, a String Quartet from 1976 by Henri Dutilleux subtitled Ainsi la nuit (Thus the night) brought a new earth to view. Donald Amstrong spoke before the work’s performance about its “organized disorganization”, a statement which seemed to characterize most aptly the sonorities and figurations that we encountered throughout. The opening sequences certainly suggested the Nocturne of the title, with haunting repetitions, punctuated by what might be characterized as owl-cries or distant ship-horns at sea. The ambiences seemed layered, so that as skins of texture were discarded others seemed firmly fixed in place underneath. After this, the Miroir d’espace that was Movement Two irrupted with sharp impulses, before the sounds widened spectrally between a haunting violin line and a near-subterranean cello, creating a yawning vista between, flecked with instrumental incident.
Each of two sections that follow were subtitled Litanies, the first closely-worked and claustrophobic, concerted passages interspersed with instrumental “adventures”, while the second sounded a kind of siren’s song, with elements of a lament, a sort of chromatic welling up from the depths and gathering strands of sharp focus together. I thought the players’ characterizations of these many and widely-contrasted sound-impulses vivid and compelling. Just as focused was the playing in Constellations, rhythmic, spiky and volatile, as if part of the cosmos was in ferment, the music expressing that “disorganized organization” Donald Armstrong talked about.
Such were the mesmeric qualities of the sounds, I found myself drifting into the music quite non-analytically at some points, losing my overview of things in impulses of delight, and then having to regretfully resist further blandishments. Even so, the last two sections of the work remain indissoluble in my mind, the music’s ambient world establishing such a sense of organic flow at this stage in the piece, the divisions were subsumed and everything became as one, a veritable “memory footprint” established by those sounds, one which haunts me even as I write this.
As if these whole-world-entities weren’t enough, after the interval we were given the full high-romantic gamut of emotion, refracted through the Brahmsian end of things. The composer’s great Piano Quintet had to claw its way through two separate gestations – firstly for strings alone, then for two pianos – before emerging in its finished form. I found the comments made by friends of the composer regarding each of these “tryouts” interesting – violinist Joseph Joachim found that the strings-alone version “lacked charm”, and the great conductor Hermann Levi told Brahms that he had turned “a monotonous work for two pianos” into a masterpiece of chamber music. Brahms destroyed the strings-only work, but the two-piano version still exists as the Sonata Op.34b.
What the Piano Quintet version of the music gives us is the work’s structural strength expressed in a “best-of-both-worlds” garb – and these were the musicians to do the music’s strength, colour and lyricism justice. The sombre opening was played in a way that hinted at the turbulence to come – a big, quasi-orchestral sound that reflected the word of the piano concertos, with Diedre Irons’ playing underpinning the grandeur of the music’s range and scope. The give-and-take between instruments had a satisfyingly full-blooded quality – only once did I find the playing of the strings too insistent, a repeated-note sequence towards the end of the development which dominated rather than accompanied the piano’s material. Conversely, I found the ‘cello occasionally not forthright enough in such company, though Rowan Prior’s counterpointing was invariably beautifully voiced and phrased.
Throughout the work the musicians never let the intensity flag, the slow movement enshrining the most passionate lyricism (a beautiful unison from violinist Cristina Vaszilcsin and Julia Joyce shining out at one point, and a plumbing of the depths from Rowan Prior’s ‘cello at another), with everybody else similarly “playing out” and realizing the emotional potentialities of the music. And, what could have been merely high spirits in the scherzo had a supercharged, “possessed” quality – no half-measures! I loved the players’ engagement with it all, the fugal sections swirling up into the festive, swaggering theme, making a great dramatic contrast with the reprise of the opening, after the trio.
What mattered more than the less-than-ideally-pure string intonations at the finale’s beginning was the mood the players evoked, portents of impending tragedy, to which the ‘cello and piano then moved swiftly and hauntedly. With Brahms moving from light to darkness through different sequences the music’s roller-coaster ride was exhilarating, rhythmic poise turning almost without warning to pursuit on occasions. The playing simply kept up its extraordinarily vivid and physical effect right to the end, where the 6/8 Presto whirled our sensibilities away, flinging the music’s last few notes out into oblivion. It was, I thought, afterwards, the kind of music-making that makes life worth living.